Treadmill Tip of the Week: Build Mental Strength with the ‘Mill

As I sit here writing this article, it is -20ºC (-4ºF) outside. This is normal for Canadian winters. There is part of me that thinks it’s more hardcore to go outside, but there’s a much bigger part of me that wants to stick to the treadmill. It’s probably smarter to stay inside. After all, there was that one time I ran a half marathon in -35ºC with the windchill and got frostbite.

Sure running outside when the air freezes the inside of your nose is hardcore, but think about it: isn’t getting in a hard workout on the treadmill pretty darn hardcore too? Without a doubt, there is one very important thing that winter treadmill running has improved for me: my mental game. Today I will share a few of my favourite tips to use the treadmill to become more mentally hardcore. But before we get started, I need you to GET ON THE TREADMILL.

Go to the race route in your mind

It may be your hometown marathon, a goal race, or turning left on Boylston, whatever the race, you know the route. You can picture the last 5K of your goal marathon in your head, or whatever portion of whatever your race is that really matters to you.

Use the mental images in your head to GO THERE. Picture the crowd cheering, the sun on your face, the finish line around the corner; you’re in control. It is not January in your mind, it’s May and this is the race you’ve been training for.

Pro-tip: The purpose of picturing the race is simple: practice makes perfect. You will be mentally in control come race day. As you’re running your race, you can remind yourself that you’ve done this countless times before … in your basement.

Play games 

It helps to be creative in making the time pass and distracting yourself from compulsively checking the distance (we all do it). For me, this includes a few mental games I play to practice self discipline.

  • Cover the display. Do not check the distance for 10 minutes or until the end of the song. The distance seems to move slower on the treadmill. This is your mind playing tricks on you!
  • Reward yourself with a gel or water after one mile, no sooner (don’t worry, you’ll live). This is especially important if you’re running long and need to ration the rest of your water and fuel.
  • You don’t need to pee (well, at least not as much as you think you do). Your body is disguising its desire to quit by making you feel like you need a bathroom break. If not a major stomach issue, make yourself wait until you reach X distance. I bet you don’t have to go when you get there. 

Challenge yourself with speed and incline 

One perk of the mill is that you can control your pace and incline. Use this to your advantage. Prepare for your treadmill run by writing out a cue card. This will allow your mind to focus on the run, instead of wasting energy calculating paces and inclines. How long was I at 1.5 or 2? It doesn’t need to be anything fancy. A scrap piece of paper will do. By giving the run structure and chopping it into segments, it will give you a sense of purpose for each mile and also make the time fly by.

Pro tip: Write mantras and mental cues on the card to keep you focused and motivated.

Visualizing yourself succeeding

Similar to picturing race day, I want you to picture yourself running strong and realizing your goals. Sometimes these goals seem impossible. Run 10K, run a marathon, sub-4:00, BQ, OTQ, we know Salty Runners dream big. Instead of wasting time letting your mind wander into a negative pit, why don’t you use your time on the treadmill to think of yourself running strong. I want you to get into the details of what success looks like to you.

Pro-tip: One of the biggest things holding runners back from achieving their goals is their belief that they simply can’t. If you are unable to truly picture yourself achieving a goal, chances are you won’t. You must believe you are capable.

Run long on the mill

Finally — and please don’t swear at me for suggesting this — do your long runs on the treadmill. There is nothing like completing a 20 miler on the ‘mill. There is something to be said for running on the treadmill, staring at the same marks on the wall, for close to three hours. Your mind will be tested (there have been times I’ve wondered if I’m losing my mind). Ain’t no scenic outdoor route that’ll give you that.

Pro-tip: Try starting a treadmill long run without Netflix, music, or other media (the horror!). See how far you can make it. You will have time to cycle through a few rounds of the tips above. Heck, picture yourself on race day, PR’ing, increasing your speed and incline all at once. You never know if you don’t try.

What’s your best tip for using the treadmill to turn into a mental beast? 

I'm a Canadian runner with a knack for training in frigid temperatures and completing 20 milers on the treadmill. I'm currently training for a spring marathon, with the goal of Boston Qualifying. Outside of running, I work in public policy and can often be found cross-stitching or being talked out of adopting another cat.

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8 comments

  1. Great tips! I love the mantras on the cue card. When I race, I like to have mantras or other mental cues for different blocks of the race, so writing them on a cue card would be a great way to drill them into my head.

    What I hate is treadmill-shaming. There’s nothing about running on a treadmill that makes you a wimp. Coach tells me to run wherever I will get the appropriate workout in. This time of year, the treadmill is frequently a better option than outside for speedwork. When people give me grief about the treadmill, I just remind them that nobody deducts 5 minutes off your race time because you ran outside all winter. It’s badass if you get all your runs in as scheduled all winter long!

    1. THANK YOU. I keep seeing post-run selfies of people with icicles hanging off their eyelashes, etc., saying how they’d rather die than run on a treadmill, and I’m thinking: a) you actually might because hypothermia is a thing; and b) my marathon is in March in south Georgia, I should probably stay acclimated to pleasant temperatures.

  2. Having a plan or a goal helps me on the mill. If I just plan to run 4 miles on it, the run is torture but if I do my speed workout or hills then I have a lot more energy.

    Oh and I definitely use the potty one extra time before getting on the machine. My bladder likes to play tricks on me and I need the assurance.

  3. +3 to all these tips! To kind of go with the music/song tip- a few years ago I started playing games with myself to you know, pass the treadmill time. I’d start the run super slow and every time the song changed I would increase the pace by .1- great for shorter runs of like 30-45 minutes (roughly 10-15 songs) but definitely also worked it into some longer ones with warm-up and cool down before jacking up the pace. This turned out to be a HUGE help in learning to pace/negative split!

  4. Such great advice! I love this post!!! I think the treadmill is a very under-appreciated tool, especially when we learn to use the characteristics of treadmill running that make it the dreadmill rather than trying to avoid them. This post *almost* has me fired up to jump on the mill, myself!

  5. I have been doing most of my training on the mill because I moved to a new area and safety is a concern until I know my way around. I also run at 6AM so it’s dark. My tip is to mix it up, even on slow recovery days. Have a plan of some sort (but go off it if you want) to change the speed or incline. I’ve also heard of people who run two miles, get off and do some kettle bell swings or something and then get back on.

  6. Love this! it’s definitely harder for me to run on the treadmill than outdoors. Even in terrible weather. Agree with all your tips, especially holding off on peeing or looking at the display until x songs or minutes have passed…

  7. I agree SO much with this…especially staying indoors instead of trying to be a “badass” and run in ridiculous temps. It’s sometimes a lot harder to stay INSIDE and run!! I usually have a plan before I step on the mill but I also like the idea of challenging yourself to just running with no distractions. I think the longest run I’ve done on a treadmill is 16 miles – just music and watching my kids cartoons on the TV in the room! I also met a friend one time at the gym and we ran side by side on treadmills for 14 miles…that was a lot easier :-)